The English Church in St Petersburg

Although the National Churches Trust only funds places of worship in the UK, we are posting this guest blog by David Whitford, as the story of the English Church in St Petersburg, which is seeking expertise and funding for a major restoration project , is such a fascinating one.

What have a library, a city excursion bureau and a concert hall got in common ? They have all been uses to which the English Church in St Petersburg has been put since it was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1919.

English church St Petersburg

English church St Petersburg

Sitting on the bank of the River Neva at 56 English Embankment, in the heart of Russia’s Imperial capital, the church was at the centre of the British community for over 150 years. Rebuilt in trademark Palladian style in 1814 – 1816 by the great Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, in his last major project, no expense was spared when the church’s strict classical interior was remade in the 1870s in Gothic Revival style with the addition of thirteen stained glass windows by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, depicting Christ, John the Baptist & the 11 Apostles, and a Brindley & Foster organ, at the time considered the finest in Northern Europe.

Much of the funding for this work came from the British Factory, the ruling club of leading merchant families which controlled the maritime trade between Imperial Russia & England and which was allowed to levy port charges & taxes on British ships and the goods exported on them in order to support its ‘house chapel’, the English Church, and its charitable works.

For Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 a further two windows depicting St George and St Elizabeth were added, together with a triptych of mosaic tableaux behind the altar, the largest of which, framed in carved mahogany, showing the Ascension, flanked by smaller depictions of the Annunciation & the Birth of Christ. An additional mosaic, to the side of the main entrance door, was added of the Three Marys at the Tomb (the ‘Myrrhbearers’).

By the early 20th Century, the English Church had an electoral roll of over two thousand five hundred, was supported by three clergy, ran classes & Sunday Schools, had a subscription lending library of over thirty thousand books, and maintained a nursing home for retired governesses.

Incredibly, the English Church survived unscathed following confiscation by the Bolsheviks and the ravages of WWII and the Siege of Leningrad, with the stained glass windows remarkably remaining in situ until the 1960s, before being taken down & stored in the organ niche. Whilst the main church hall was partitioned up and used as office space, the walls, tableaux and plaques were hidden behind long curtains and the font and similar fixtures were boarded up & protected. It was therefore spared the fate of some of the other foreign churches, which were remodelled & put to use as sports clubs – the German Lutheran church became a public swimming baths, for example, and the Swedish Lutheran church housed several basketball courts.

Although an Anglican congregation started up again in St Petersburg in November 1993, it has been forced to worship in other churches (& currently shares the Swedish Lutheran church for Sunday services) as the English Church has remained in the ownership of the city administration, albeit protected as a federal monument listed with the Russian Ministry of Culture.

Since 2003, the building has been sub-let to the St Petersburg Music Conservatory which had plans to develop a concert space and conference centre there but which subsequently ran out of funds and now simply uses the building for storage. The Anglican Church in St Petersburg has been able to gain access to the English Church for recent key services, including Remembrance Sunday, Christmas & Easter, and is now in early discussions with the city about the more permanent return of the English Church.

Given the scale of the project, the Anglican Church in St Petersburg welcomes any assistance, large or small, including the sharing of expertise regarding similar conservation projects & potential funding sources. Local volunteers are also always needed, should anyone be planning an extended trip or sabbatical or study year in St Petersburg.

For more information regarding the Anglican Church in St Petersburg, please visit our website

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